- Silhouette photos are striking and timeless. They're one of those tricks that good photographers keep tucked in their back pockets, ready to pull out at a moment's notice. Nothing can beat a beautiful and simple silhouette when the light is right and the subject is right.
Not sure where to begin? Here's a complete guide to getting starting with silhouette photos, including some excellent silhouette photography ideas.
What is Silhouette Photography?
You've probably seen dozens of silhouette photos but might not have known what to call them. A silhouette is a dark figure placed on a bright background. You can see the figure's outline, but it's so dark you can only see it as a shadow. As a result, there's a little bit of mystery in the image since you can't make out the details. For example, if it's a portrait, you can see that it's a person - but you can't exactly make out who it is.
Silhouettes are a very old art form. They originated in France in the mid-18th century. Initially, it was popular to make profile portraits by using cutouts of dark paper placed on lighter colour backgrounds. So, the term and the idea predates photography.
While the popularity of this type of portraiture has faded, silhouettes are still very much in vogue when it comes to creative photography. Do read our article with 10 expert tips on clicking aesthetic photos. Nearly any camera can be convinced to take a silhouette photograph, but sometimes it takes a little encouragement from the photographer.
Silhouettes are also popular in graphic design. A silhouette is a simplified form of a complex object, making it perfect for integration into designs. Sticker art, logos, web and app UI graphics, and all sorts of other applications use silhouettes to illustrate bigger ideas. They're great because they are visually straightforward yet can depict so much story with great effect. Want to read more on design? Here is a complete guide on graphic design, for any creative who loves the visual arts.
Silhouettes are even used in film and movie production. If you think back to dark, classic film noir, you will undoubtedly imagine silhouette shots. And who can forget Alfred Hitchcock, stepping into his silhouette at the beginning of every show?
Here are the different types of Silhouette Images
- Perfect Versus Partial Silhouettes
- Silhouette Portrait Photography
- Nature Silhouette Photography
- Indoor Silhouette Photography
Perfect Versus Partial Silhouettes
Before diving into all the various ways you can take a silhouette, it's essential to acknowledge that there are no right or wrong ways to do it. Like many other photography techniques, silhouettes can be applied differently to different situations.
The most obvious thing that you can tinker with is the amount of silhouette effect you give your subject. You can opt for something traditional - the perfect silhouette. In this instance, the subject is entirely black.
As you increase the exposure to the subject, more and more details become apparent. In this case, you are taking a partial silhouette. Read more for tips on mastering the art of taking amazing black and white pictures.
Silhouette Portrait Photography
The classic silhouette is a portrait. Of course, this is far from the only option-anything that you can place in front of a light background will work. But some subjects are more conducive to being captured as silhouettes than others.
Portraits work well because they are simple and identifiable. However, even portraits require careful planning because it is easy for your subject's form and shape to get lost by incorrect posing or busy backgrounds. Here are 16 top tips to create great portraits for inspiration.
Keeping your subject or subjects as distinct as possible is a vital part of a successful silhouette. People are generally shot on their profiles to provide an outline of their facial features. When posing groups, it's vital to have space between each individual. Otherwise, everything tends to blend together.
Besides people and animals, inanimate objects can make great silhouette photos too. For example, buildings or city skylines can turn an otherwise humdrum sunset photo into a masterpiece. You can also use statues, trees, or architectural features in nature silhouette photography. Do read our guide on architecture photography to understand this exciting and varied subject.
The only urgent requirement for what can be silhouetted and what cannot is that your subject must be identifiable from its outline. If it's too abstract, you'll leave your audience wondering what they're looking at. Remember, the mystery of a silhouette comes not from trying to guess what you're seeing but from guessing the details that you can't quite make out.
Nature Silhouette Photography
Landscapes are by far the most common element to be included in silhouette images. The iconic and well-known landscape, usually at sunset or sunrise, makes a simple and elegant backdrop for any subject. The dramatic lighting and colours of the sky are an instantly recognizable and beautiful background. Here are the top tips on natural light photography and the best time to take pictures outdoors.
The best thing about nature's preferred silhouette background is that you can use it with any subject. For the pure landscape photographer, place recognizable elements in the foreground. For example, certain mountain peaks or treelines make mountain silhouettes sing. At the beach, use ships passing offshore, beachgoers on bicycles, or surf fishermen. Piers and docks can provide interesting architectural and pattern-based elements, too.
Indoor Silhouette Photography
But just using the sun outdoors is too restrictive for such a robust artform. Indoor silhouette photography can produce some fantastic results, too. The bonus is that indoors the photographer has complete control of the light sources and positioning. Whether using natural light from windows and doors or artificial light from lamps or candles, you can silhouette anything.
Indoors you also can add flashes or strobes to fill in subjects or better define their silhouettes. Rim lighting is a silhouette technique used for many low-key lighting setups. A light source is placed behind the subject to highlight its outline for the camera. The result is a strong halo effect that can really make the image pop.
How to Shoot Silhouette Photography?
Now that you have the basic idea of what silhouette photos are, you may be wondering how to get started making them.
The key to getting the picture you desire is to understand your camera's exposure functions. If you have a fully automatic camera, like a smartphone, you can still take silhouettes. But to do it, you might have to resort to a bit of trickery.
You see, most cameras will try to meter their exposure settings based on producing the least amount of underexposed areas. A silhouette, by definition, is an intentionally underexposed area. So you'll have to find a way around your camera's programming in order to pull it off.
If you have a completely manual camera, this is pretty easy. You can reduce the exposure by increasing the f-stop or shutter speed, or both. You want to set your exposure to be perfect for the background. In some cases, especially sunsets or sunrises, this may even be slightly underexposed. The result will make your subject extremely underexposed.
But what if you have an automatic camera that doesn't give you control over these things? The answer is fairly simple. First, aim the camera at the sky and allow it to acquire the settings for the photograph. Then frame your subject and take the picture before it has time to adjust for the new element.
Many point-and-shoot cameras allow you to activate an exposure lock by half-pressing the shutter button. That way, you can use the exposure for the background, keep half-pressing the button, and take your time framing the subject too.
Alternatively, you may be able to use a spot metering tool. Most smartphones have this ability. Simply frame the image like you want it composed, and then tap the area you want to be exposed correctly. In a silhouette, this will be a bright area of the background. The camera should then adjust, and your subject will likely be darkly silhouetted. Some cameras allow you to fine-tune the exposure further by dragging your finger up or down from the spot metering zone.
Finally, it's easy to edit silhouette pictures in any post-production software. Simply find the highlight, shadows, and blacks sliders to adjust the elements as desired.
Lighting for Silhouette Photography
The only key to lighting silhouettes is to have a backlight behind the subject that is brighter than the foreground lighting. Two classic examples include a figure with its back to the sunset, or in the case of indoor silhouette photography, a figure in front of a brightly lit window frame.
You can emphasize the effect by increasing or decreasing the light behind and in front of the subject in both cases. For a partial silhouette, you can add some light to the front of your subject to show more details. In a perfect silhouette, you'll want to keep foreground lighting to an absolute minimum. Read more photography tips for taking those stunning pictures you have always wanted.
4 Great Tips to do Silhouette Photography
Photography of silhouettes isn't inherently different in any way from regular photography. The only difference is that the subject is more or less two-dimensional. With that in mind, you'll want to stack your image in a way that emphasizes depth.
In some cases, this may mean adding another light source so that your silhouette becomes partial. But other times, it can be done simply by spacing elements in the frame. Alternatively, you could embrace the two-dimensional qualities of the image to make it stand out.
Picking Your Subject
Silhouettes pop up in the most surprising ways to create impactful compositions. The best advice is not to limit yourself--when the lighting conditions are suitable for silhouettes, start working with the subjects you have available. It doesn't matter whether you're shooting indoor silhouette photography or nature silhouette photography-- you can use any subject so long as it tells a good story.
But you do have to be a bit picky when it comes to getting just the right things for your composition. Silhouettes require something that is clearly communicated, and the more distinctive the outline is, the better it is for your story. For example, you might want a silhouette of a car on the beach against a sunset. But if you take an everyday sedan, it probably won't have much to say in the final image. Most sedans look the same, especially when all the details are removed.
Now, imagine the story you could tell with a really distinctive vehicle. For example, if parked on the beach, a Volkswagon camper van immediately conjures images of van life, surfers, and endless summers.
The example above is a good illustration of why picking your subject is essential with silhouettes. Yes, you can use any car parked along the beach. But the more unique it is, the more unique the story in your composition.
Besides uniqueness, what about simplicity? Imagine you want to take the same sunset beach photo, but this time with a group of bicyclists cruising by. With the bikes grouped together, they become stacked on top of one another in your two-dimensional photo frame. A far better composition is to get them riding in a single file line, with some space between each one. Then each bike and rider becomes a unique subject, and the definition of the form and lines is evident.
Posing Your Subject
As with picking your subjects, you'll want to take care posing models when taking silhouettes. Here are 30 ideas for the best photography poses. On the one hand, it's a little bit easier than posing regular compositions. After all, the silhouette effect limits the details that the viewers will see. What's left is a two-dimensional flat subject - but that's the rub, too.
You see, the element of depth is going to be removed entirely from your model. This is why the straight profile is so common in silhouette portraits photography. If you have the head turned a little one way or another, you will lose all facial features.
Similarly, positioning of arms and legs is essential too. Ideally, you'll want to have space. A model with crossed arms or legs causes their body shape to change. At worst, they can look like they're missing an appendage. At best, it simply comes off as unflattering.
Images in motion tend to work well with silhouettes. Walking spreads out the body and adds a dynamic element. In the end, the amount of detail you want to see from your model is up to you.
Group images also pose some challenges for silhouette pictures. In traditional photography, you might pose a family close together, with their arms on each other's shoulders to show closeness. But this can create a mass of bodies that is impossible for the viewer to break apart when it comes to silhouettes. A better tactic is to have the subjects stand apart from one another so that each body is a unique form.
Editing Silhouette Photos
Putting the finishing touches on silhouettes isn't different from other forms of photography. But it is easy to manipulate silhouette pictures, making it easy to increase or decrease the silhouette effect.
The primary tool is always the exposure tools dialog in Photoshop or whatever editing platform you're using. You can generally create any effect level you desire by simply playing with the highlight and shadows sliders. In some cases, you may even be able to lend silhouette effects after the fact.
If global adjustments aren't doing it for you, consider creating a stacked image. You can alter the components of each layer independently and see how they work together. Then, all you need to do is extract the foreground subjects into their own layer. You can then decrease the exposure or fill them with black for a perfect silhouette.
Extracting the objects into their own layers also lends itself to tinkering and fine-tuning the image's background. Often the striking differences in exposure that make great silhouette compositions also render poorly on some cameras. Having the background in its own layer will allow you to saturate colors or make highlights pop even more without harming the subject's dark borders.
Finally, extracting layers can help you clean up the subject's outlines. Distracting elements like messy hair or clothing that go out of control can be cleaned up. This might be slightly beyond the realm of what most photographers want to alter, but it can lead to massive gains in the clarity and story-telling ability of the image.
Silhouette Photography Ideas and FAQs
How Do I Shoot a Silhouette Picture?
Here's a step-by-step guide to shooting a great silhouette.
- First, pick a bright background and a distinct subject to place in it. Subjects are best when they are identifiable only from their outline--but they can be any object, animate or inanimate.
- Compose the image for the best results, using the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Spiral to make an interesting and engaging image.
- If posing a model, ensure that the outline is distinct and eye-catching. It may require different poses than you would normally select. For example, direct 90-degree profile views are often the best silhouettes.
- Setup your camera's exposure settings to optimize the background lighting. If you have an automatic camera, ensure that the HDR settings are off and that it's spot metering on the bright background.
- Consider using exposure bracketing to capture more image detail. You can extract the piece you need in post-production to make the best silhouette.
- In post-production, use your editing program's tools for controlling exposure to your advantage. The highlights and the shadows sliders are the most valuable controls for this task.
What Camera Settings are Ideal for Silhouette Photography?
You don't need many fancy camera settings or a fully manual SLR to get a good silhouette photo. All you need is a camera that allows you to control its exposure capture to some extent. The single most valuable tool for silhouette photography is the spot metering tool.
Thankfully, even most smartphones have this. All you have to do is tap the screen on the area you want to be exposed properly. You can then drag your finger to fine-tune the results.
Most mirrorless and DSLR systems have multiple metering modes. While the default is often a multi-zone "smart" metering, the one you want to pick is either centre-weighted or spot. These zones will enable you to select the area you want to use. When used in concert with the exposure AE lock function, you should be able to grab the exposure of the background that you desire and frame the subject exactly as you would like to compose the image.
In addition to spot metering, another valuable tool is the exposure compensation setting. This setting, usually on a rotary selector of your DSLR, allows you to selectively over or underexpose the entire image. So after you've spot metered, if you want to fine-tune the results, you can underexpose the image even further.
Another tactic to take is to ditch all of these settings and go fully manual. Of course, you'll still be worried about how the camera is metering, so this is still most effective with the spot metering set to the bright parts of the background. But with fully manual mode, you can select the proper settings to give you a dark background.
If your camera has live view, adjust the three parts of the exposure triangle until you've got the image you want. Start with a low ISO of 100 for the most details. Then start at an intermediate f-stop, perhaps f/8.0 or more, which should produce an adequate depth of field for both the background and subject. Finally, select higher shutter speeds to reduce light to the exposure until the desired silhouette effect is created.
If your camera has an automatic HDR (high dynamic range) setting, you'll want to turn that off for silhouette photographs. The HDR tool is designed to reduce silhouettes by capturing more detail in underexposed areas.
You can still make an HDR silhouette, but the effect will be muted. For example, some sunsets are best shot in HDR so that the camera can capture all of the different light levels in the sky. This likely still won't be enough to properly expose the subject in the foreground, though--so the result is still a great silhouette.
On the other hand, if your camera has a manual HDR setting with exposure bracketing, you can stack the images later in Photoshop to create the perfect silhouette after the fact.
What is the Silhouette Technique of Photography?
Silhouettes are objects that are dark and underexposed so that the viewer can only definitively see their outline. Any object can be silhouetted, but more often than not, they are a form of portrait.
There is a mysterious quality to silhouettes that is not entirely unappealing. Because the viewer cannot readily identify the person in the portrait, it provides a generic quality that makes it easy for the viewer to use their imagination to fill in the missing pieces.
Silhouettes are an old art form, but they aren't going away anytime soon. Their ability to captivate and tell stories with their simplicity and evocative emotion makes them portfolio superstars every time.
Even as you continue to learn and inculcate the skills of silhouette photography, you must not forget to market your work. Build a professional photography website to showcase your silhouette photos. Curate your best work and regularly update your portfolio website by adding your ecent work. Your website is your showcase window to the world and the first point of contact with potential clients and collaborators. Here’s a great article on how to create a photography portfolio website.
Pixpa is a portfolio website builder platform that is trusted by creative pros around the world. Have a look at some outstanding portfolio website examples. Pixpa offers an easy yet powerful drag-and-drop website builder and includes Client galleries, eCommerce, and blogging tools to enable you to manage your complete online presence through one seamless platform. Explore all features that make Pixpa the perfect choice for creative professionals.
Every photographer, regardless of their speciality, should practice their silhouette skills regularly to keep sharp. You never know when you'll be presented with just the right background and just the right subject!